|Cherokee County WWII War Stories
CARL O. BENSONTHE
SAGA OF A PRISONER OF WAR (based on an interview with Carl done by
Donna Kauffman) - On December 7, 1941, carrier based Japanese planes
attacked the American Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. With
that act, a state of war existed between the United States of America
and the Empire of Japan. Within a few days, the United States was
officially at War with all of the Axis powers.
On that Sunday in
1941, 19 year old Carl O. Benson was working on is parents' farm near
Marcus, IA. Neither Carl nor his parents Gust and Ida Benson
realized, at that moment, how this event was to effect the life of
Carl gave a great deal of consideration as to where
his duty lay. He felt that he had a duty to his country that he
had to fulfill, and he wanted to do his share in defending the nation.
At the time, he thought the War would be over in a year or so, as
did many others. He enlisted in the U.S. Army on April 11, 1942
and was assigned to the infantry.
After enlistment, he was
assigned to Camp Claiborne, LA; which at that time, had a reputation
for swamps and snakes. At Camp Claiborne Carl underwent almost a
year of basic training; which emphasized physical fitness, learning to
become a soldier and the military way of life, handling weapons, and
walking guard posts.
Basic equipment included a rifle, uniforms
for seasonal wear, shoes, boots, and the usual equipment that a foot
soldier carries on his person. Some of the recruits were also
Carl remembers that the recruits were especially
warned to beware of snakes, which included quite a variety. If a
trainee was in need of replacement for any of his equipment, he
was to go see the top sergeant. "The food was substantial " Carl
recalls, "except milk was not as plentiful as we were accustomed to at
home." The trainees were expected to maintain military bearing
and act like soldiers at all times.
After completion of his
basic training, Carl boarded a troop train and headed for the
embarkation camp of Fort Dix, NJ. From Fort Dix he boarded a
troop ship and sailed to a camp in England. From England, he
shipped to North Africa to take part in the Allied Invasion of North
Africa, known as "Operation Torch." Once in Algeria, Carl was led to
the front lines.
Carl recalls, "All of a sudden were in the
War...fighting in mountain terrain. There were no fox holes, jut
hills completely covered with rocks. Suddenly, we were fighting
the enemy, doing our est with the equipment and training we had
It was in the vicinity of Laid Pass that Carl found
himself surrounded and confronted from all sides by enemy troops.
Carl and others were captured by German troops. "I laughed,
" Carl says, "because I did not understand one word they were saying.
One of the German soldiers attacked me with his bayonet, because
of this, and drove the bayonet into my right side. I was treated
by our own medics, who had also been captured; and later by German
Among Carl's mementos are a copy of the telegram
received by his parents on March 30, 1943, announcing to them that he
was missing in action; the telegram telling his parents that he was a
prisoner of war of the Italians, dated April 19, 1943; and a faded
Italian official Prisoner of War post card, printed on poor quality
paper, from Carl to his parents...telling them that he was in an
Italian P.O.W. Camp. Thus was officially documented the beginning
of Carl Benson's period of captivity by the Axis powers.
to remain a prisoner of the Italians, and then the Germans, until the
end of the War with Germany. Carl is remarkably free of
bitterness toward his captors. After his wound was healed, he was
put to work on a farm in Germany. Her he spent 16 months working
as a laborer. He states that it was a regular German farm where good
food was plentiful. When he received letters from home, the pages
were covered with the heavy black marks of the censor's pen. He
only learned what the enemy wanted him to.
Government surrendered to the allies in 1943, bu by that time Carl had
been sent to Germany and was a prisoner of the Germans. He states
that he was never abused while a prisoner. On the farm, a
"friendly atmosphere developed between the prisoners and their captors.
For his work he received 10 cents per day, $3.00 per month.
This money was used to buy smokes, which were very inadequate.
Carl says that they really appreciated the Red Cross and the
American tobacco company. Every three months Care packages
containing, among other things, American cigarettes. "We shared
among ourselves", he recalls. Most of their leisure time was
spent in smoking. This was almost their only relaxation.
duty performed by the prisoners working on the farm was the digging of
trenches. These trenches were dug side by side. Later, the
prisoners found out that these trenches were to be used as graves for
future burials. The bodies placed in them were tagged for
identification by placing their name tags wedged in their mouths.
This was so that the bodies could later be identified, if the
need arose. During the burials a German official stood by, recording
statistics. What, or who, was inside the wooden boxes placed in
the trenches, the prisoners didn't know and did not inquire.
to the prisoner's surprise, shortly after the Battle of Okinawa word
arrived that they were to be released. The Germans had
surrendered unconditionally to the allies.
In July of 1945,
P.F.C. Benson was homebound to the land he had enlisted to defend.
Among the decorations awarded him by a grateful government, was
the Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, and others. Two items among
his mementos have special meaning. One is a letter from the
adjutant general announcing to his parents that their son, P.F. C Carl
Benson had been returned to allied control. This was official
jargon meaning Carl had been liberated from the Prison Camp and was
back in allied hands. The second is a telegram from Carl,
himself, to his parents, announcing that he was back in the U.S.A. and
would be home soon.
He returned to America and eventually was
stationed at Jefferson Barracks, MO. In August of 1945, he
received his discharge from the United States Army.
civilian life was not easy, he recalls. Shortly after he arrived
home, Cherokee had a parade. "I was standing on the corner near
the old Wolff store. An airplane flew overhead and made a loud
noise. My first reaction was to protect myself. I lodged
myself against the store building. Everything was still fresh in
my mind, and I reacted automatically."
Carl was one of three
sons of Gust and Ida Benson to serve in World War II. His
patriotic response to an attack on the United States was typical of
hundreds of thousands of young men who rushed to join the army to help
defend the nation in her time of need.
He was savagely bayoneted
by a German soldier after he was taken prisoner, and he spent almost
two years as a prisoner of war. Yet he harbors no deep resentment
against the enemy.
Thank you, Carl Benson, for your sacrifices during the War and for sharing some of your experiences with us.
Cherokee County Historical Society Newsletter, Vol 15, Num 1, Jan 1980,
Sec V, Pg 10.
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